Pompey 0 Oxford United 1

Ryan Fulton saves Liam Sercombe's penalty Picture: Joe Pepler
Ryan Fulton saves Liam Sercombe's penalty Picture: Joe Pepler

A defeat – yet it represented so much more.

Forget the circumstances of the result, discard any positives which may have emerged and dispel the anger directed towards Neil Swarbrick’s wretched refereeing display.

Strip it all away and the harsh facts are Pompey are now seven points adrift of the automatic promotion places.

An unpalatable truth which is more alarming than any aspect of yesterday’s 1-0 defeat to Oxford United.

Granted, there are two games in hand, a tally which will stretch to three come next weekend with the Blues again in FA Cup action.

Yet Paul Cook’s men are slipping further behind as the U’s, Plymouth Argyle and Northampton Town surge relentlessly ahead, seemingly without weakness.

Not ignoring resurgent Bristol Rovers, of course, who have now also passed Pompey.

Additionally, leaders Northampton are now 14 points ahead of the fifth-placed Blues having won 10 of their last 11 League Two fixtures. Their only failure in that period – a 2-1 home defeat to Cook’s troops.

In contrast, for all their lack of defeats, Pompey have not strung more than two successive league victories together all season.

Suddenly the task of leaving League Two via an automatic place looks considerably more daunting.

Essentially the visit of Oxford was a must-win for the hosts in their on-going endeavours to catch up the breakaway three.

Instead it resulted in a fourth loss of the campaign – and one that could ultimately prove catastrophic to their ambitions.

After the match Michael Appleton described the occasion as the defining moment of the U’s season.

Only towards the end of the campaign will we accurately be able to judge the damage yesterday inflicted on Pompey’s own promotion aspirations.

In fairness, with 20 matches remaining there is plenty of opportunity to shrug off the blow and plough ahead effectively, certainly not beyond the ability of this talented squad.

The growing points difference is far from unassailable for a team which it would be folly to write off following a second loss in its last 14 matches.

The glorious FA Cup conquerors of Ipswich days earlier have not descended into mediocrity on the back of 90 minutes.

It took conceding a first home goal since October 20 to inflict a first Fratton Park defeat since September 29, when Exeter were the victors.

As for Oxford, undoubtedly they are the best team the Blues have faced in League Two this term, having impressed in the corresponding fixture.

Their triumph shouldn’t be used to condemn Cook and his players, who continue to consistently provide the most attractive football the Fratton faithful have witnessed since the Harry Redknapp era.

However, a current deficit of seven points is a concern which cannot simply be brushed off.

The visits of Plymouth, Northampton and Rovers during this second part of the season have taken on even greater significance.

For Fratton Park results against the trio will be central to Pompey’s promotion hopes after their Oxford failure.

Still, yesterday’s contest was an intriguing affair, despite few goalscoring opportunities created at either end.

Appleton’s side snapped and snarled their way through the game’s opening exchanges and maintained an in-your-face approach which never diminished.

For the first half especially it knocked the hosts out of their stride, largely starved them of possession and forced passes to be delivered quickly and without care.

Pompey were not dictating at their own pace, they were being dictated to.

No other team visiting Fratton Park this season has reduced Cook’s team to such measures, including the Championship trio of Derby, Reading and Ipswich.

The Blues improved significantly after the break, yet the opening 45 minutes was an eye-opener for the Fratton faithful as Oxford bossed proceedings.

Certainly a baptism of fire for Ryan Fulton following his loan arrival from Liverpool 24 hours earlier.

With Brian Murphy not recovering from an injury collected against Ipswich, the 19-year-old was pitched into the side for the first senior appearance of his career.

Fulton had not even trained with his team-mates before his debut, while the fit-again Paul Jones was a surprise name on the bench to serve as back up.

The other change to the side which defeated the Tractor Boys 2-1 was Matt Clarke replacing Christian Burgess in defence, a nod of acknowledgement towards his impressive displays while Burgess was out injured.

Clarke would subsequently produce a towering central defensive performance, once more defying his age of 19 years.

The first half would see Oxford establish themselves as the better side, yet it was Pompey who created the best goal-scoring opportunity.

On 19 minutes Gareth Evans and Gary Roberts combined to feed the ball to Marc McNulty inside the penalty area and he fired in an angled snapshot.

Yet skipper Jake Wright was present on the line to prevent the ball from entering the net as the scoreline remained goalless.

Regardless of Oxford’s strong start to the match it remained goalless at half-time, with Cook’s men stepping up their performance for the second period.

Yet on 51 minutes the visitors earned a penalty when Fulton came racing off his line to challenge Danny Hylton only to upend the striker.

Liam Sercombe, Oxford’s regular penalty taker, stepped up and saw his shot saved when the keeper dived to his right, the youngster also stopping his rebound.

A stunning start in football for the highly-regarded Fulton, who overall contributed solidly and can be proud of his display.

Yet there was nothing he could do to prevent Jordan Bowery’s 76th minute match winner.

The substitute, recruited on loan from Rotherham a day earlier, had been on the pitch for seven minutes before racing onto Wright’s measured pass and steering a first-time shot into the far corner.

It was a stunning strike from the debutant and a worthy goal to give Oxford a win they deserved.

And in doing so widened the League Two promotion gap to a concerning seven points.